Call in the robots, let’s not wait for the haze

Australia is frenetically fighting the worst bushfires in its recent history. Throughout the island nation, a whopping 10 million hectares of vegetation have been obliterated and 28 innocent lives claimed by the seemingly insatiable inferno. Melbourne is now suffering from the worst air quality in the world, according to the Environmental Protection Authority of Australia.

It’s a situation that’s all too familiar to Malaysians. Growing up in Selangor, haze was a near-annual affair for me. In fact as a kid, I remember hoping that the air quality would get so bad the school would close for the day. Now I know better and rue its deleterious effect on our delicate bodies.

Every year the haze returns and we lament our wretched fate, curse the irresponsible companies setting fire to the forests in order to fatten their wallets and complain about the lack of decisive action by the Indonesian and Malaysian governments. Last year, environmentally-conscious Malaysians took to the streets for the inaugural Global Climate Strike.

This is a good effort, but we need to do more. Just like clockwork, haze season will rear its ugly head again later this year and we need to be proactive in order to protect ourselves from the pollution that’s precipitously perched right at our nation’s porch.

And as with most things, technology can help. Here are some ways how it can be of use:

Of course I have to start with the most interesting of the lot. Thermite, from Howe and Howe Technologies, is a robotic mini-tank fitted with a high-pressure water hose. It’s a simple idea that could have wide-ranging implications for putting out forest fires and helping with all kinds of other emergency relief. It’s fitted with tank tracks which allow it to traverse terrain that most other vehicles can’t. Traditional firetrucks aren’t made for off-road use, but Thermite could provide firefighters with the ability to fight fire more effectively in hard-to-reach areas.

And the best part? It’s unmanned.

Bushfires like the ones currently ravaging Australia and the forest fires that lay waste to Sumatran forests annually are a huge health hazard. In addition to actually being engulfed by the flames, inhaling the toxic fumes generated often causes asphyxia and respiratory-related illnesses.

Imagine being able to deploy these unmanned, remotely-controlled firefighting robots to the worst affected regions instead of risking the lives of flesh-and-blood firefighters. It’s about time we stopped asking these brave souls to put their precious lives on the line; and thanks to today’s technology we can.

Thanks to some very intelligent folks at the University of California San Diego, we now have WIFIRE, an AI-powered wildfire prediction software. It takes information like high-resolution satellite imagery and real-time wind and precipitation data, among other things, to model a forest fire. This provides firefighters with much-needed intelligence on how to efficiently utilise their often limited resources.

It’s been a hit. The Los Angeles Fire Department and around 120 other groups across California are currently testing it out and deriving immense benefit from it.

Not one to take a challenge lying down, NASA has developed the fancy and French-sounding AUDREY (Assistant for Understanding Data through Reasoning, Extraction and sYnthesis. AUDREY is a smart combination of AI and Internet of Things technology which is designed to provide first responders with valuable data on the fly as they are fighting raging fires.

It collects data on temperature, gasses and other risks associated with firefighting and provides it to the firefighters in real-time, essentially acting as a sixth sense of sorts. Think the data overlaid on the screen inside Iron Man’s suit (minus Jarvis and the oh-so-sweet rocket-propelled missiles, of course).

For something that has such a poor public image, drones are incredibly useful. The most obvious use of drones for this purpose is to map out exactly where fires are raging. This will provide firefighting teams with invaluable intelligence and direction for plotting their next move. These drones can be fitted with high-definition infrared and thermal imaging cameras that are capable of seeing right through the thick, dense smoke that often envelops the burning region.

These specially-equipped drones can even supply a steady stream of heat maps, georeferenced aerial images and the temperature scales of these fires. This is all valuable information for the ground team which will be able to piece together all these vital data to chart an intelligent course of action. Drones allow the capture of these incredibly useful data at a fraction of the cost and human effort of conventional systems.

Using planes and helicopters for such missions are quite the endeavor due to the exorbitant human capital, labour and energy costs it demands. It also poses a considerable risk to the life of firefighters. Between 2006 and 2016, almost a quarter of all firefighter deaths were due to plane and helicopter crashes in the US. Drones eradicate this risk.

All in all, we have an entire buffet of fast advancing technology that can potentially alleviate our burden when fighting forest fires. The government should take note of the technologies available to fight fires and ensure that at least some of these are made available to the Fire and Rescue Department. We can use these to fight peat fires in the country and, if needed, we can send our firefighters, equipped with these technologies, to help Indonesia fight its forest fires.

Let’s not wait for the haze to hit us from June on; let’s be better prepared this year. And that means not just the use of better technology but, more importantly, better regulation that deters powerful companies from setting fire to forests, and by extension our future, just to earn a quick buck.

We’re together in all of this. It’s about time we became mindful of it. The world is a giant ship precariously coasting along the ocean of the universe. It has experienced some near-capsizing events but has always managed to stay afloat thanks to its incredible resilience. Let’s not be the generation that finally puts a hole big enough to sink this beautiful ship we all call home.

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.